The Coddling of the American Mind

Greg Lukianoff, Jonathan Haidt

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Summary of modern social justice issues from a sensible perspective. Greg and Jon take into account lots of data and par it down to the essentials, getting to a concise argument throughout the book. I agree with their analysis, but since I had read many of the books they mentioned (iGen, Antifragile) I could’ve come to the same conclusion without the book.


This is a book about three Great Untruths that seem to have spread widely in recent years: The Untruth of Fragility: What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker. The Untruth of Emotional Reasoning: Always trust your feelings. The Untruth of Us Versus Them: Life is a battle between good people and evil people.

What is new today is the premise that students are fragile. Even those who are not fragile themselves often believe that others are in danger and therefore need protection. There is no expectation that students will grow stronger from their encounters with speech or texts they label “triggering.”

We are not saying that students are never in real physical danger, or that their claims about injustice are usually cognitive distortions. We are saying that even when students are reacting to real problems, they are more likely than previous generations to engage in thought patterns that make those problems seem more threatening, which makes them harder to solve. An important discovery by early CBT researchers was that if people learn to stop thinking this way, their depression and anxiety usually subside.

Students were beginning to demand protection from speech because they had unwittingly learned to employ the very cognitive distortions that CBT tries to correct. Stated simply: Many university students are learning to think in distorted ways, and this increases their likelihood of becoming fragile, anxious, and easily hurt.

Whatever your identity, background, or political ideology, you will be happier, healthier, stronger, and more likely to succeed in pursuing your own goals if you do the opposite of what Misoponos advised. That means seeking out challenges (rather than eliminating or avoiding everything that “feels unsafe”), freeing yourself from cognitive distortions (rather than always trusting your initial feelings), and taking a generous view of other people, and looking for nuance (rather than assuming the worst about people within a simplistic us-versus-them morality).

As with trauma, a key change for most of the concepts Haslam examined was the shift to a subjective standard. It was not for anyone else to decide what counted as trauma, bullying, or abuse; if it felt like that to you, trust your feelings. If a person reported that an event was traumatic (or bullying or abusive), his or her subjective assessment was increasingly taken as sufficient evidence.

It is vital that people who have survived violence become habituated to ordinary cues and reminders woven into the fabric of daily life. Avoiding triggers is a symptom of PTSD, not a treatment for it.

A culture that allows the concept of “safety” to creep so far that it equates emotional discomfort with physical danger is a culture that encourages people to systematically protect one another from the very experiences embedded in daily life that they need in order to become strong and healthy.

This is not a book about Millennials; indeed, Millennials are getting a bad rap these days, as many people erroneously attribute recent campus trends to them. This is a book about the very different attitudes toward speech and safety that spread across universities as the Millennials were leaving. We are not blaming iGen. Rather, we are proposing that today’s college students were raised by parents and teachers who had children’s best interests at heart but who often did not give them the freedom to develop their antifragility.

Beck’s great discovery was that it is possible to break the disempowering feedback cycle between negative beliefs and negative emotions. If you can get people to examine these beliefs and consider counterevidence, it gives them at least some moments of relief from negative emotions, and if you release them from negative emotions, they become more open to questioning their negative beliefs.

A common finding is that CBT works about as well as Prozac and similar drugs for relieving the symptoms of anxiety disorders and mild to moderate depression, and it does so with longer-lasting benefits and without any negative side effects. But CBT is effective for more than anxiety and depression, including anorexia, bulimia, obsessive compulsive disorder, anger, marital discord, and stress-related disorders. CBT is easy to do, has been widely used, has been demonstrated to be effective, and is the best-studied form of psychotherapy. It is therefore the therapy with the strongest evidence that it is both safe and effective.

There is no universally accepted definition of “critical thinking,” but most treatments of the concept include a commitment to connect one’s claims to reliable evidence in a proper way—which is the basis of scholarship and is also the essence of CBT. (Critical thinking is also needed to recognize and defeat “fake news.”) It is not acceptable for a scholar to say, “You have shown me convincing evidence that my claim is wrong, but I still feel that my claim is right, so I’m sticking with it.”

More generally, the microaggression concept reveals a crucial moral change on campus: the shift from “intent” to “impact.” In moral judgment as it has long been studied by psychologists, intent is essential for assessing guilt. We generally hold people morally responsible for acts that they intended to commit. If Bob tries to poison Maria and he fails, he has committed a very serious crime, even though he has made no impact on Maria. (Bob is still guilty of attempted murder.) Conversely, if Maria accidentally kills Bob by (consensually) kissing him after eating a peanut butter sandwich, she has committed no offense if she had no idea he was deathly allergic to peanuts.

But if you teach students that intention doesn’t matter, and you also encourage students to find more things offensive (leading them to experience more negative impacts), and you also tell them that whoever says or does the things they find offensive are “aggressors” who have committed acts of bigotry against them, then you are probably fostering feelings of victimization, anger, and hopelessness in your students.

The concept of “locus of control” goes back to behaviorist days, when psychologists noted that animals (including people) could be trained to expect that they could get what they wanted through their own behavior (that is, some control over outcomes was “internal” to themselves). Conversely, animals could be trained to expect that nothing they did mattered (that is, all control of outcomes was “external” to themselves). A great deal of research shows that having an internal locus of control leads to greater health, happiness, effort expended, success in school, and success at work. An internal locus of control has even been found to make many kinds of adversity less painful.

But as far as we can tell, those backstories don’t involve Spellman or Christakis. So why did students interpret the emails as offenses so grave that they justified calls for their authors to be fired? It’s as though some of the students had their own mental prototype, a schema with two boxes to fill: victim and oppressor. Everyone is placed into one box or the other… Within this paradigm, when power is perceived to be held by one group over others, there is a moral polarity: the groups seen as powerful are bad, while the groups seen as oppressed are good.

While some critics challenged the sampling used in that study, findings in a second study by McLaughlin and Associates were similar; 30% of undergraduate students surveyed agreed with this statement: “If someone is using hate speech or making racially charged comments, physical violence can be justified to prevent this person from espousing their hateful views.”

The students continued: “If engaged, Heather Mac Donald would not be debating on mere difference of opinion, but the right of Black people to exist.” This sentence includes fortune-telling, as the students predict what Mac Donald would say. It also includes a rhetorical flourish that became common in 2017: the assertion that a speaker will “deny” people from certain identity groups “the right to exist.” This thinking is a form of catastrophizing, in that it inflates the horrors of a speaker’s words far beyond what the speaker might actually say.

We are very good at being individuals pursuing our everyday goals (which Durkheim called the level of the “profane,” or ordinary). But we also have the capacity to transition, temporarily, to a higher collective plane, which Durkheim called the level of the “sacred.” He said that we have access to a set of emotions that we experience only when we are part of a collective—feelings like “collective effervescence,” which Durkheim described as social “electricity” generated when a group gathers and achieves a state of union. (You’ve probably felt this while doing things like playing a team sport or singing in a choir, or during religious worship.)

In Jon’s field, academic psychology, the left-to-right ratio was between two to one and four to one from the 1930s through the mid-1990s, but then it began to shoot upward, reaching seventeen to one by 2016. The ratios in other core fields in the humanities and social sciences are nearly all above ten to one.

The distance between Republicans and Democrats, on a set of 10 policy questions, has grown very large since 2004. Differences by race, gender, education, and age have not changed much since 1994. (Source: Pew Research Center.)

In other words, Americans are now motivated to leave their couches to take part in political action not by love for their party’s candidate but by hatred of the other party’s candidate. Negative partisanship means that American politics is driven less by hope and more by the Untruth of Us Versus Them. “They” must be stopped, at all costs.

But Facebook and other social media platforms didn’t really draw many middle school students until after the iPhone was introduced (in 2007) and was widely adopted over the next few years. It’s best, then, to think about the entire period from 2007 to roughly 2012 as a brief span in which the social life of the average American teen changed substantially. Social media platforms proliferated, and adolescents began using Twitter (founded in 2006), Tumblr (2007), Instagram (2010), Snapchat (2011), and a variety of others.

Why might social media be more harmful for girls than for boys? There are at least two possible reasons. The first is that social media presents “curated” versions of lives, and girls may be more adversely affected than boys by the gap between appearance and reality… The second reason that social media may be harder on girls is that girls and boys are aggressive in different ways.

The first members of iGen started arriving on college campuses in September 2013; by May 2017, when the eldest members began graduating, the student body at U.S. colleges was almost entirely iGen (at least in selective four-year residential colleges). These are precisely the years in which the new culture of safetyism seemed to emerge from out of nowhere.

Confirming these upward trends with a different dataset, Figure 7.3 shows the percentage of college students who describe themselves as having a mental disorder. That number increased from 2.7 to 6.1 for male college students between 2012 and 2016 (that’s an increase of 126%). For female college students, it rose even more: from 5.8 to 14.5 (an increase of 150%).

Depression and anxiety tend to go together. Both conditions create strong negative emotions, which feed emotional reasoning. Anxiety changes the brain in pervasive ways such that threats seem to jump out at the person, even in ambiguous or harmless circumstances. Compared to their nonanxious peers, anxious students are therefore more likely to perceive danger in innocent questions (leading them to embrace the concept of microaggressions) or in a passage of a novel (leading them to ask for a trigger warning) or in a lecture given by a guest speaker (leading them to want the lecturer disinvited or for someone to create a safe space as an alternative to the lecture).

Walsh was instrumental in a novel method of disseminating photographs of missing children: printing them on milk cartons, under the big all-caps word MISSING. The first such cartons appeared in 1984, and one of the first photos was of Etan Patz. By the early 1990s, the program had spread, and photos of missing children were reproduced on grocery bags, billboards, pizza boxes, even utility bills. Norms changed, fears grew, and many parents came to believe that if they took their eyes off their children for an instant in any public venue, their kid might be snatched.

Parents spending time with their kids is generally a good thing, but too much close supervision and protection can morph into safetyism. Safetyism takes children who are antifragile by nature and turns them into young adults who are more fragile and anxious, and therefore more receptive to the Untruth of Fragility: What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.

Severe adversity that hits kids early, especially in the absence of secure and loving attachment relationships with adults, does not make them stronger; it makes them weaker. Chronic, severe adversity creates “toxic stress.”

It’s the same logic for physical skills (such as fleeing from predators) and social skills (such as negotiating conflicts and cooperation). The genes get the ball rolling on the first draft of the brain, but the brain is “expecting” the child to engage in thousands of hours of play—including thousands of falls, scrapes, conflicts, insults, alliances, betrayals, status competitions, and acts of exclusion—in order to develop. Children who are deprived of play are less likely to develop into physically and socially competent teens and adults.

Twenge shows how responses have changed to the survey question “I get a real kick out of doing things that are a little dangerous.” From 1994 through 2010, the percentage of adolescents who agreed with that question held steady, in the low 50s. But as iGen enters the dataset, agreement drops, dipping to 43% by 2015. If members of iGen have been risk-deprived and are therefore more risk averse, then it is likely that they have a lower bar for what they see as daunting or threatening.

The decline in free play was likely driven by several factors, including an unrealistic fear of strangers and kidnapping (since the 1980s); the rising competitiveness for admission to top universities (over many decades); a rising emphasis on testing, test preparation, and homework; and a corresponding deemphasis on physical and social skills (since the early 2000s).

In order to fully grasp the success of the three Great Untruths on campus, it’s essential to understand how a growing campus bureaucracy has been unintentionally encouraging these bad intellectual habits for years, and how they still do today. This is our fifth explanatory thread.

In 2013, the Departments of Education and Justice issued a sweeping new definition of harassment: any “unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature,” including “verbal, nonverbal, or physical conduct.” This definition was not limited to speech that would be offensive to a reasonable person, nor did it require that the alleged target actually be offended—both requirements of traditional harassment claims. By eliminating the reasonable-person standard, harassment was left to be defined by the self-reported subjective experience of every member of the university community. It was, in effect, emotional reasoning turned into a federal regulation.

In 2013, Campbell and Manning began noticing the same changes on campus that Greg had been noticing—the interlocking set of new ideas about microaggressions, trigger warnings, and safe spaces. They noted that the emerging morality of victimhood culture was radically different from dignity culture. They defined a victimhood culture as having three distinct attributes: First, “individuals and groups display high sensitivity to slight”; second, they “have a tendency to handle conflicts through complaints to third parties”; and third, they “seek to cultivate an image of being victims who deserve assistance.”

Not since the Vietnam War and the civil rights struggles of the 1960s have so many Americans been exposed to a seemingly endless stream of videos showing innocent people—mostly people of color—being beaten, killed, or deported by armed representatives of the state. Today’s college students have lived through extraordinary times, and, as a result, many of them have developed an extraordinary passion for social justice. That passion, which drives some of the changes we are seeing on college campuses in recent years, is our sixth explanatory thread.

Intuitive justice is the combination of distributive justice (the perception that people are getting what is deserved) and procedural justice (the perception that the process by which things are distributed and rules are enforced is fair and trustworthy).

The consistent finding in equity theory research is that in most relationships, people keep close track of how much reward each person is reaping (their outcomes, such as pay and perks) in proportion to how much they are contributing (their inputs, such as hours worked and the skills or credentials they bring). They do this more in work relationships and less in intimate relationships, but even in marriages, people are not oblivious to these ratios, and because of the power of self-serving biases, they often have a sense that they are doing more than their “fair share” of some or all tasks.

Most people want individuals to be treated well, and they recoil from cases where individuals are treated unfairly in order to bring about some kind of group-level equality. This is why quotas generally produce such strong backlash: they mandate a violation of procedural justice (people are treated differently based on their race, sex, or some other factor) and distributive justice (rewards are not proportional to inputs) to achieve a specific end-state of equal outcomes.

Instead, we urge students to treat deviations from population norms as invitations to investigate further. Is the deviation present in the pipeline or applicant pool for the job? If so, then look at the beginning of the pipeline more than at the end of it, and be willing to entertain the possibility that people of different genders and people from different cultures may have different preferences.

We believe there would be many benefits to students, to universities, and to the nation if a new national norm emerged of taking a gap year, or a year of national service, or a few years of military service, before attending college.

Throughout this book, we have emphasized a basic principle of social psychology: the more you separate people and point out differences among them, the more divided and less trusting they will become. Conversely, the more you emphasize common goals or interests, shared fate, and common humanity, the more they will see one another as fellow human beings, treat one another well, and come to appreciate one another’s contributions to the community.

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